The sound of horses’ hooves clattered on the cobblestone streets and the golden light of the setting sun cast shadows over the faces of the people pawing through the piles of sweetgrass baskets in the City Market. I could close my eyes and think I’d gone back in time, the smell of horse manure ripe in my nose, lulled by the cries of the vendors, their sing-song Gullah- accented tones bringing back a sense of the West Africa I once knew. I turned and started down Church Street, passing Broad Street after several blocks, ending up on the waterfront, passing house after house with decorative pineapples adorning the gateways, mailboxes, and doors of immense mansions, a sense of the past emanating from every window, every staircase, every porch. Continue reading
Not too long ago, before the snow fell and kept falling, I drove down to Critz, Virginia, the homeplace of Virginia tobacco baron, J. R. Reynolds. Reynolds’s parents, Hardin Reynolds and Nancy Jane Cox Reynolds, owned several hundred slaves, who worked the 717-acre Rock Spring plantation. One of these slaves went by the name of “Kitty,” a cook so celebrated that her picture now hangs in the restored cookhouse. Nancy Jane – who could apparently write a fine hand – counted among her belongings a pewter tea service and used a dining room table at a time when many farmers in the area still lived in two-room cabins. Nancy’s family, the Coxes, came from England, while the Scots-Irish Reynolds family moved to Virginia from Pennsylvania. When she married in 1843, she might have had access to cookbooks like Mary Randolph’s The Virginia House-wife. Or perhaps she found Lydia Maria Child’s The American Frugal Housewife (1830) of use. But, a little later on, someone might have shared Mrs. Mary L. Edgeworth’s The Southern Gardener and Recipe Book (1845). And of course there’s Sarah Rutledge’s The Carolina Housewife from 1847.
But if I had to bet my money, I might inch toward Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell’s A New System of Domestic Cookery… Many New Receipts from 1842.
One thing is for certain, though, and that is that the slaves and the Reynolds probably ate a lot of sweet potatoes, cooked in the embers of the hearth. Testimony from the Virginia Slave Narratives attests to that.
The cookhouse, as was so often the case in those days, stood a good deal away from the main house, keeping down the risk of fire damage to the main dwelling, as well as reducing the heat during hot summers. And to keep the slaves out of the main house as much as possible. Visitors couldn’t enter the kitchen on the day I visited, but the brick floor and large hearth filled with “spiders” or three-legged cast-iron pots and a long-handled skillet testify to the type of cooking done there.
Perhaps nothing illustrates more poignantly the differences between the lives (and deaths) of these slaves and those of their white owners than the graveyards on the place. Both visible from the big house, the sixty-one slave graves stand in stark contrast to the graves of the white Reynolds family.
Better educated and more accomplished than her illiterate husband Hardin, Nancy Jane bore sixteen children, of which eight survived to adulthood.
Although a few graves sported headstones in the slave cemetery, most do not.
Small brass circles mark the slave graves, each numbered.
The slave graveyard sits on a gently sloping knoll and if I didn’t notice the few gravestones in place, I would have walked right by.
In contrast, stately headstones fill up the Reynolds family cemetery. Every time Nancy Jane Cox Reynolds looked out the window of that large red-brick house, she could see the graves of her children.
**The title of this post comes from a slave song titled “Old Lem,” associated with the Underground Railroad.
© 2013 C. Bertelsen
Sugary milky sweetness, that first delicious taste, imprints itself on a baby’s tiny tongue, and seals forever a great love. From the very beginning of life, then, a yearning for that nectar haunts us forever and never leaves us in peace.
This primal urge for sweetness led to the scourge of slavery and fuels the modern obesity epidemic.
Imagine, for a moment, vast fields of sugar cane, saber-sharp green blades swaying under gentle tropical breezes, fed by the merciless sun and watered by torrential rains. Visualize men and women gripping machetes, hacking at tough stalks, sweat rolling down their necks and arms and burning their eyes with the saltiness of it.
Sweetness links directly to sweat, yes.
Thanks to the perspiring backs of lowly laborers, mostly African slaves, sweetness arrived on European and American tables. Without that sweat, the glorious cakes and fancy sugar art of the classical French kitchen might never have evolved as they did, nor the tea cakes of Britain or the gooey chess pies of American cooks.
When I decided to bake the Green-Grape Tart from Paula Wolfert’s The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen: Recipes for the Passionate Cook (2003), for the first time, I truly understood just why sugar cane revolutionized the European kitchen. Honey really didn’t sweeten everything before the arrival of cane sugar in Europe. And I saw clearly why cooks preferred to work with cane sugar in their kitchens, no matter where those kitchens might have been.
It’s one thing to read about foods like grape-sugar syrup, commonly used as a sweetener in Roman and medieval European cuisine, and another thing to actually get down and dirty by making some.
I started with two pounds of plump green grapes, their firm skins a pleasure to touch as I plucked each one off their shriveled stems. Unlike my medieval predecessors, I simply whirled them in my Cuisinart food processor and turned them into a sort of pulpy green grape juice. Curious, I poured a few tablespoons into a small wine glass and sipped. The taste reminded me of some slightly fermented new wine I drank once in October in Burgundy, France. I spent about 10 minutes with this step.
The next step demanded a little more elbow grease. I poured the mixture into my chinoise or French cone-shaped sieve. I pressed the wooden pestle hard against the fine mesh of the sieve and watched the light green and foamy juice oozing out, into a shallow saucepan. That step took about 15 minutes to complete.
Boiling down the juice over medium heat came next. As the liquid evaporated, and I stirred madly with a wooden spoon, I noticed that the beautiful light green color changed to a rather unattractive brownish hue, close to that of mud. Aiming for the 1/3 cup recommended in the recipe, I feared that the sugars would caramelize before I got the volume down. Some caramelization occurred, but not enough to seize uncontrollably when I added the sugary syrup to the eggs and milk. This step took about 30 minutes.
Basically a custardy version of clafoutis, the tart came out tasting slightly, but pleasantly, sweet, unlike most American desserts, which often cause excruciating tooth pain because of excessive sugar.
Sitting in my kitchen, eating a piece of this tart, I savored the fresh taste, but I also know that I much prefer dipping a measuring cup into my sugar canister over spending about an hour making the grape-sugar syrup.
But I would make grape-sugar syrup again, because there’s something about following these old culinary processes that – crazy as it sounds – calls up visions of cooks from the past, creating miracles from the bounty of the earth. There’s something comforting in that, you know. Not quite mother’s milk perhaps, but close.
© 2012 C. Bertelsen
All around the world, cooks come in many shapes, ages, and dispositions.
Many of these cooks are children, mostly girls, working in the kitchens of wealthy people. In some cases, the arrangement veers on the edge of slavery, not employment.
And in Haiti, an outright form of slavery still exists.
A recent Huffington Post article, “Report Says 225,000 Haiti Children Work as Slaves,” contains no real new information, although such publicity brings exposure and therefore possibly an end to this long-term practice. Poor families – and in Haiti there are many — give up their children for small sums of money or just to have one less mouth to feed. The report by the Pan American Development Foundation details the difficult lives that these children lead. Relationships between the children and the wealthier families they live with tend to be based on kinship in some cases, as well as simple boarding arrangements. But in the final analysis, the bottom line determines the way the “host” families treat these children, called “restaveks.”
Several years ago when we lived in Haiti because of work on a USAID* project, one of the activities of the project was a national agricultural survey, as well as a food consumption study. Here’s what I wrote in a letter at the time:
M___ was hiking around out in the countryside one day, trying to determine the boundaries of some survey segments. Accompanied by several Haitian co-workers, he ended up on the crest of a mountain. [Haiti is VERY mountainous!]. The Haitians never bring water to drink while they hike. They believe the cold water will harm them, I guess, though M___ always drinks water out of his thermos. This particular day, there happened to be a farmer and some little girls up on the ridge. The farmer offered them all water. The Haitians accepted and drank nearly half of the 5-gallon bucket of one little girl. She began to cry because she now had to go back and refill the bucket. It could be miles that she had to walk to get that water. M___ thought she probably was the farmer’s daughter, but I wondered if she wasn’t rather what in Creole is called a “restavek” or “one who stays with.” It is essentially an ingrained system of slavery, where parents will sell excess children to families who are supposedly better off financially (the price running as low as 2 gourdes or 40 cents). These new families are ideally supposed to provide schooling and so on, but the actuality for most of these children is a life of servitude. They eat scraps from the table and sleep in a corner on rags. Many of the children carrying water here are “restaveks,” and they wear rags, taunted continuously by the real children of the family. Many never really learn to speak because they are often only spoken to in anger and with grunts.
Sometimes, when I’m absent-mindedly filling a pot with water for boiling pasta, I think of that little girl. And I am thankful that I don’t have to walk for miles with five gallons of water on my head, sloshing down my neck and wearing me out.
Like so many women do around the world, not just in Haiti.
Many organizations now exist, working toward bringing this modern version of the “peculiar institution” to an end.
*United States Agency for International Development
© 2009 C. Bertelsen
Dey ‘s a-wokin’ in de qua’tahs a-preparin’ fu’ de feas’,
So de little pigs is feelin’ kind o’ shy.
De chickens ain’t so trus’ful ez dey was, to say de leas’,
An’ de wise ol’ hens is roostin’ mighty high.
You could n’t git a gobblah fu’ to look you in de face–
I ain’t sayin’ whut de tu’ky ‘spects is true;
But hit’s mighty dange’ous trav’lin’ fu’ de critters on de place
F’om de time dat log commence a bu’nin’ thoo.
Paul Laurence Dunbar, A Back-Log Song*
Tragically, African slaves rarely learned to read and write, it being considered dangerous to their white masters to allow literacy running rampant. And so, except for accounts left by white slaveowners and others, very little writing exists concerning the diet and cooking of slaves. Archaeological excavations of slave cabins reveal interesting material, as do oral histories miraculously recorded in the 1930s. After the Civil War, some former slaves learned to read and write and left accounts of their lives under slavery.
Like a trail of crumbs, what remains renders up clues to where dietary trends and celebration foods came from.
For slaves, the Christmas season broke the back-breaking monotony of their lives.
Cookbooks written by descendants of slaves offer one view of the slave diet at Christmas time. Or at least what they might aspire to.
In The Taste of Country Cooking, Edna Lewis, a superb African-American cook and chef, depicted in detail the Christmas foods that she and her family enjoyed in Freetown, Virginia, an enclave of freed slaves. Her grandparents were among those freed. Miss Lewis recalled making plum pudding and fruitcakes with her mother. Their larder also included “oranges, almonds, Brazil nuts, and raisins that came in clusters.” Another traditional food brought on rapturous longings: “And although we were miles from the sea, at Christmas one of the treats we always looked forward to was oysters. The oysters were delivered to Lahore’s [grocery] in barrels on Christmas Eve day … .“ The list of foods prepared clearly demonstrates abundance:
Mixed small birds
Braised guinea hen
Liver pudding (recipe below)
Roasted wild turkey (occasionally)
Pickles made from cucumber, watermelon rind, crab apples, and peaches
Traditional holiday desserts also shone gloriously on the heavily laden tables: layer cakes (caramel, coconut), pound cake, fruitcake, fudge, peanut brittle, sugar cookies, mince pies, and fruit pies made with canned summer fruits.
While the women cooked, the men made wine from wild plums, elderberries, dandelions, and grapes.
It’s not hard to imagine that at least some of Miss Lewis’s ancestors served as cooks in the great houses on Virginia plantations, including that of Claiborne R. Mason, the landowner who gave her relatives the land for their town.
She invited her readers into the kitchen with her superb writing and recipes, including the following menus for meals on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, evocative of plantation cuisine.
Her menu for Christmas Eve Supper:
Baked Country Ham
Crusty Yeast Bread — Ham Biscuits
Wild Blackberry Jelly — Watermelon Rind Pickles
Yellow Vanilla Pound Cake — Hickory Nut Cookies — Sugar Cookies
Dandelion Wine — Plum Wine
Her menu for Christmas Day Breakfast:
Eggs Sunny-Side Up
Wild Strawberry Preserves
Other accounts of slave food at Christmas rely on spoken language.
According to the reminiscences of a black cook named Annie Hale, Christmas day dinner for her sharecropper family provided the biggest feast of the year. Her family ate ham — this was the only time it appeared on the table, salted-down spareribs, sliced sweet potatoes spiced with nutmeg, yeast rolls made with white flour (a luxury), and four cakes – caramel, chocolate, plain, and coconut. Neighbors came to visit, eat cake, and drink homemade wine, in a manner similar to what Edna Lewis experienced. (Evan Jones, American Food: The Gastronomic Story, p. 106)
Former slave Harriet Jacobs, in Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl, described Christmas festivities during slavery:
Christmas is a day of feasting, both with white and colored people. Slaves, who are lucky enough to have a few shillings, are sure to spend them for good eating; and many a turkey and pig is captured, without saying, “By your leave, sir.” Those who cannot obtain these, cook a ‘possum, or a raccoon, from which savory dishes can be made. My grandmother raised poultry and pigs for sale and it was her established custom to have both a turkey and a pig roasted for Christmas dinner.
Slaves generally received a week off at Christmas, except for the cooks and house servants. Following a custom imported from England, similar to Boxing Day traditions, the masters presented their slaves with gifts, often in the form of shoes, money, or alcohol. (1)
But the real treasure in beginning to look at slave Christmas customs lies in precious oral history. Much of the knowledge of slavery conditions come from a far-seeing project carried out under the supervision of Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). Between 1936 and 1938, interviewers recorded the memories of over 2,300 former slaves still living in the United States.
Mary Reynolds, a former slave living in Dallas, Texas, told WPA interviewers:**
They give all the niggers [sic] fresh meat on Christmas and a plug tobacco all round. The highes’ cotton picker gits a suit of clothes and all the women what had twins that year gits a outfittin’ of clothes for the twins and a double, warm blanket.
And another former slave, Booker T. Washington, recalled Christmas-time hog butchering in Virginia:
This was one of the incidents which usually preceded a Virginia Christmas. There is another which I still vividly remember. It was at this season that the year’s crop of hogs was killed, and the meat for the ensuing year was cured and stored away in the smokehouse. This came, as a rule, during the week before Christmas, and was, as I recollect it, one of the annual diversions of plantation life. I recall the great blazing fire flaring up in the darkness of the night and grown men and women moving about in the flickering shadows. I remember with what feelings of mingled horror and hungry anticipation I looked at the long rows of hogs hung on the fence-rail, preparatory to being cut up and salted away for the year. For days after this event every slave cabin was supplied with materials for a sumptuous feast.
He also wrote about liver pudding, a dish very similar to French patés.
What none of this truly conveys is the tremendous culinary legacy passed down by slave women who cooked in the Great Houses.
How did illiterate slaves cook from cookbooks or know how to cook all those dishes that Edna Lewis lists as Christmas foods? Jane Carson, in Colonial Virginia Cookery: Procedures, Equipment, and Ingredients in Colonial Cooking, quotes an aged slave named Isaac, who was interviewed in the 1840s and said that his mother was the pastry cook for Thomas Jefferson’s household. Isaac recollected that “Mrs. Jefferson would come out there [to the kitchen] with a cookery book in her hand and read out of it to Isaac’s mother h0w to make cakes, tarts, and so on.”
1 ½ lbs. fresh pork liver
1 ½ lbs. fresh pork jowl or 1 ½ lbs. fresh unsalted pork middling or unsalted bacon
1 medium onion
2 cups liquid from boiled liver mixture
2 t. salt
½ t. freshly ground black pepper
1 t. fresh sage
1 heavy tin loaf pan or 1 2 ½-qt. casserole
The liver should not be sliced; leave it in one piece. The jowl should be in one piece as well, and is cooked in the skin. If fresh bacon or middling is used, the lean is removed. Place the liver, jowl, and onion in a pot with enough cold water to cover abut 2 inches above the meat. Set to cook on a medium-high burner until the pot begins to simmer. Cook gently until the jowl is tender, about two hours. Remove the meat and onion from the pot and leave to cool. Cut the liver and jowl with their skins into small pieces and put them through a food chopper or meat grinder along with the onion. Alternate fat and liver to keep the mill from clogging up. When all is ground, add 2 cups of the liquid from the cooked liver mixture. Pour off the top water and use the bottom liquid because it contains residue from the cooked meat. Stir in the liver mixture; you will have a very liquid batter. Then add in salt, pepper, and sage. Mix well and pour into the tin loaf pan or casserole. Bake in a preheated 250 degree F oven for 2 ½ hours until the pudding has completely dried down. If not cooked enough, the pudding will not slice properly. It is the long cooking that develops the fine flavor of the pudding. Remove from oven. When cool, place in cold place or the refrigerator.
The following video offers visual background to some of the spirituals sung by African slaves. Watch up to 3:20 minutes (the rest is twentieth century and a tribute to Martin Luther King). The link takes you right to the YouTube site and it takes a bit of time to load. There’s some, if brief, interesting footage of pounding grain.
*Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote in dialect, as well as classical English.
**The language in this quote is taken directly from the words of the informant.
(1) In 1850, one slaveowner — Thomas B. Chaplin — of St. Helena Island, South Carolina, wrote in his journal on Christmas day, “I only wish the Negroes were at work. I had nothing to give them but a few turnips, but they are satisfied, **pretend to be** and I suppose to enjoy themselves, though I don’t.” From: Tombee: Portrait of a Cotton Planter : With the Journal of Thomas B. Chaplin (1822-1890), by Theodore Rosengarten (1992), p. 516.
© 2009 C. Bertelsen
What is now the state of Virginia boasted the first permanent English settlement in North America. Despite its rocky beginnings in 1607, the settlement eventually flourished. The first Africans arrived in 1619 and the tobacco industry began in earnest. Along with the need for cheap labor, provided by slavery, the colonialists desired nothing more than to live as English gentlemen and gentlewomen on the edge of the vast wilderness.
That all this transpired thirteen years prior to the Pilgrims’ landing in Plymouth, Massachusetts poses some interesting questions about the transference of English customs to the fledgling settlements. Some scholars believe that Virginians started the westward expansion. If so, then it stands to reason that many of the food-related customs of Virginia would also go west. (See Fischer and Kelly, 2000.)
On one of the most important holidays — Christmas — cooks rolled out the so-called red carpet for the hordes of visiting friends and relatives who stayed as long as a month.
From the point of view of the white upper class in Virginia, Christmas festivities promised delights and depended heavily on the work of African slaves in a variety of kitchen types. The following description barely mentions a crucial part of the preparations, the work of the African women who cooked for the master and mistress.
Christmas, with its festivities and its preparations, was a busy time to the housekeeper of fifty years ago, ” befo’ de war,” in Virginia. It meant thought and labor for weeks beforehand; especially was this true of the homes in the country, where lavish entertainment was the rule. The home I have in mind is a rambling, old-fashioned Virginia house, thirty miles from Fredericksburg, and in that part of Virginia known as the Northern neck, which is said to have produced more great men than any other place of the same size in this country. Weeks before Christmas supplies were ordered from either Baltimore or Richmond. Then came’ the busy time. The Southern woman in those days, while the ” Lady Bountiful” of her domain, and surrounded by servants ready to do her bidding, had her responsibilities and cares. She was up with the lark, saw her household in order; she ministered to the sick and comforted the afflicted; bond and free alike had her care. There was as much excitement and anticipation among the negroes at Christmas as among the whites, from the smallest little darkey [sic] to Uncle Peter, the oldest negro on the plantation. Two weeks before Christmas began the busy time, seeding raisins, cutting citron, washing and drying currants, for these were the days before all this could be bought. Every housekeeper had her own especial receipts handed down from mother to daughter. In the big kitchen at night, before a blazing log fire, would sit the cook, surrounded by several of the house servants preparing the fruit for cakes, mincemeat and plum pudding. Apple toddy was made by an old family receipt usually a month beforehand, as it improved, like many other things, with age. The menu for a
Christmas dinner at this old house was a soup, either calf’s head or turtle; then a turkey at one end and a young pig or a haunch of venison at the other, with a great variety of vegetables. Wines of different kinds were served throughout the dinner, and of a rare vintage were they, for every man of means had his wine cellar and the Virginia gentleman of those days was a connoisseur. Then came the dessert, to childhood’s eyes most important; a bowl of calvesfoot jelly, sparkling in the cut glass bowl, and the oft repeated comparison of Santa Clans in the old nursery jingle, ‘that he had a round face and a little round belly, which shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly,’* was a good one to juvenile minds. The plum pudding was always brought in, in a blaze of glory, with a sprig of holly in the top,
while the blue flame danced around it. A big fruit cake, mince pies and blanc-mange moulded in the shape of eggs and lying in a nest of thinly shaved lemon peel, were some of the Christmas cheer on that dinner table. The china was the old blue Canton, while the finest damask, cut glass and old silver added its aristocratic touch to the picture. Every servant had his share of the good things, and that night the sound of the fiddle and the shuffle of many feet gave evidence of a dance in the kitchen for the negroes. (Mas. James T. Halsey.) Sue Mason Maury Halsey. (From Jacqueline Harrison Smith; see below.)
Notice the English overtones of the menu, with the flaming plum pudding, fruit cakes, and mince pies.
This menu typically graced the holiday table of George and Martha Washington, who, at the General’s death, owned a total of 316 slaves. At Mount Vernon, the house servants, unlike the field-hands, did not get a whole week off at Christmas, for they needed to cook food for all the visitors passing through the Washingtons’ dining room. Likely they prepared the following recipes:
Martha Washington’s Christmas Pie
First make a good standing crust,** let the wall and bottom be very thick; bone a turkey, a goose, a fowl, a partridge, and a pigeon. Season them all very well, take half an ounce of mace, half an ounce of nutmegs, a quarter of an ounce of cloves, and half an ounce of black pepper, all beat fine together, two large spoonfuls of salt, and then mix them together. Open the fowls all down the back, and bone them; first the pigeon, then the partridge, cover them; then the fowl, then the goose, and then the turkey, which must be large; season them all well first, and lay them in the crust, so as it will look only like a whole turkey; then have a hare ready cased, and wiped with a clean cloth. Cut it to pieces; that is joint it; season it, and lay it as close as you can on one side; on the other side woodcocks, moor game, and what sort of wild fowl you can get. Season them well, and lay them close; put at least four pounds of butter into the pie, then lay on your lid, which must be a very thick one, and let it be well baked. It must have a very hot oven, and will take at least four hours.
To Make a Great Cake
Take 40 eggs and divide the whites from the yolks & beat them to a froth then work 4 pounds of butter to a cream & put the whites of eggs to it a Spoon full at a time till it is well work’d then put 4 pounds of sugar finely powderd [sic] to it in the same manner then put in the Youlks [sic] of eggs & 5 pounds of flower [sic] & 5 pounds of fruit. 2 hours will bake it add to it half an ounce of mace & nutmeg half a pint of wine & some frensh [sic] brandy.
Remember that these were the days before KitchenAid mixers. Someone had to provide the muscle power to beat the eggs and butter.
And those people were African female slaves.
*From Clement Clark Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas.”
**Often called a “coffin” in old recipes.
Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement, David Hackett Fischer and James C. Kelly (2000).
Christmas with the Washingtons: Being a Special Account of Traditional Rites observed in VIRGINIA and Historic Yuletides of one First Family, the WASHINGTONS of Mount Vernon, by Olive Bailey and Worth Bailey (1948).
Famous Old Receipts Used a Hundred Years and More in the Kitchens of the North and South, Contributed by Descendants, edited by Jacqueline Harrison Smith, 2nd edition, p. 21 (1908).
Martha Washington’s Book of Cookery, edited by Karen Hess (1981, 1995)
To be continued …
© 2009 C. Bertelsen